Service Dogs, The Definitive Guide (2019)
So, you think you know service dogs?
More than likely, you know quite a bit but did you know that service dogs cover many areas and can help people with dozens of different diagnoses.
In fact, service dogs are constantly expanding on how they work and help owners with disabilities and disorders.
In this article, we are going to look at everything you need to know about service dogs, including the most common types of service dogs, how to qualify for one, and what you need to do to train one.
What is a Service Dog?
First, let’s start by answering a simple question, what is a service dog?
To do that, we need to look at the Americans with Disabilities act which define a service dog as one that has been trained, on an individual basis, to work or perform tasks for people with disabilities.
This means that the dog is more than just a pet and for most service dog organizations, they are not pets at all. Instead, they are a dog that has an important job and while they have periods where they get to rest and just be dogs, there are large parts of their day where they are working.
Service dogs require proper certification and this allows them to be allowed to any type of business, including food businesses. When they are in public, they are generally harnessed and perform their tasks while in close proximity with their owner.
Types of Service Dogs
Now that we understand what a service dog is, it is time to look at the types of service dogs working today. There are quite a few of them and while you may be familiar with many different branches of service dog careers, you may be surprised by some of them as well.
The types of service dogs are:
Number One: Guide Dogs for the Blind
Obviously, the first type of service dog on our list is a guide dog for the blind or visually impaired. They are the most commonly known service dog and have a long history of providing their owners with independence, security and freedom.
In public, the guide dog helps navigate the world around their owner while providing them with safety from unseen hazards. The dogs work closely with their owners and need to be able to make quick decisions for the benefit of their owner.
Although they provide a very important service in public, guide dogs are also helpful at home and are often trained to help with tasks such as retrieving dropped items, opening doors and other tasks.
Number Two: Mobility Assistance Dogs
With mobility assistance dogs, there are several different sub-categories but the primary task of a mobility dog is to assist their owner with mobility. This can be by providing them with stability and balance, turning on lights or even answering the phone.
They can work as:
- Wheelchair assistance dogs: Assist their owners with tasks such as retrieving dropped objects, providing stability when they are moving from their wheelchair to another seat or bed, opening doors and even picking up the phone for answering. In addition, they may help pull the wheelchair or anything else that is needed by their owner.
- Mobility Support: Also known as a brace dog, this is a dog who is trained to work as a brace for someone with a balance disability. In addition, they will help open doors, turn on lights and retrieve dropped items among many other tasks. Only larger dogs over 23 inches in height can be mobility support dogs.
- Medical Assistance Dogs: This can be for mobility or it can be for any disability that doesn’t fit into other categories. Like other service dogs, their tasks are customized to the needs of their owner.
Mobility support dogs, and all of the tasks they perform, help their owners live a more independent life.
Number Three: Mental Health Service Dogs
Also known as psychiatric service dogs or PSD’s, mental health service dogs are difficult to describe. The main reason for this is because their roles vary greatly depending on the diagnosis of their owners. They can perform tasks from things such as pulling back blankets, turning on lights, to opening curtains and answering phones.
In addition, they can be trained to identify when an anxiety attack is about to occur and they will use calming tasks such as deep pressure stimulation to help calm their owners. The scope of their training will range but they are trained to work with people who have an emotional or psychiatric disability such as PTSD, anxiety or ADHD to name a few.
Often, people think of mental health service dogs as emotional support dogs but they are not the same. While they offer emotional support, they are certified as a service dog and perform specialized services for their owners in addition to the emotional support.
Number Four: Diabetes Assistance Dogs
Also known as diabetic alert dog guides, these are dogs that are specially trained to work with diabetics, especially those who are insulin dependant and are hypoglycemic unaware. They can work with anyone 10 years or older and will help them monitor their blood sugar levels.
While they offer companionship to their owners, the main purpose of these dogs is to detect sudden drops in blood sugar. When they do, the dog will alert the owner so they can eat something with sugar to help level out their blood sugar levels.
In addition, a diabetes assistance dog is trained to get help or to activate an alert system if the blood sugar drop is accompanied by unconsciousness or other symptoms that make the owner unable to get help for him or herself.
With this specialized training, diabetes assistance dogs offer independence as well as additional safety for those with diabetes.
Number Five: Hearing Guide Dogs
Although we are often very familiar with guide dogs for the blind, fewer people are aware of guide dogs for the deaf or hearing guide dogs. However, they are a very important service dog that has allowed many to live independently without worry.
As you can imagine, hearing guide dogs work with people who are hearing impaired. You do not need to have full hearing loss to qualify for a hearing guide dog and many people who are hard of hearing can qualify for one.
The main role of the hearing guide dog is to alert their owner, though physical contact, to a sound. They will aid their owner both at home and in public.
At home, hearing guide dogs will alert their owners to household sounds, both normal or unusual. They will make physical contact before they lead their owners toward the sound. In the event of an alarm, they will lead their owner away from the danger. Sounds that they will alert to in the home are:
- Baby cries
- Oven timers
- Doorbell or someone knocking on the door
- Smoke Alarm, CO2 Alarms, etc.
- Alarm Clock
In public, hearing guide dogs bring awareness of the environment to their owners. They are not trained to draw their owner towards or away from a sound, however, in public, they are trained to look towards a noise. In this capacity, their owner can look toward the sound to see what is happening around them.
In addition to drawing their attention to the sounds, the hearing guide dog helps ease anxiety since owners will feel more confident with understanding what is happening around them.
In both situations, hearing guide dogs offer freedom for their owners as well as companionship and a lessening of isolation. All these traits offer their hearing impaired owners a multitude of benefits that wouldn’t be possible without this guide dog service.
Number Six: Seizure Response Dogs
Although many people think of a seizure response dog working to identify when a seizure is about to take place, seizure response dogs offer much more than that to their owners. Like many other service dogs, they work to make life easier for their owners by doing things such as retrieving medication.
In addition, if a seizure hits, they are trained to perform deep pressure stimulation to help reduce the length of a seizure. Furthermore, they can be trained to fetch help in the event that their own has a strong seizure.
It should be noted that this training is very specialized and not all seizure response dogs alert to seizures. For that to happen, it has to be a natural instinct on the part of the dog.
Number Seven: Allergy Dogs
Similar to other alert service dogs such as diabetes assistance dogs, allergy dogs offer companionship for their owners while they provide a service. They offer allergy sufferers, especially those with anaphylactic allergies, a sense of security when they are out with potential allergens in their environment.
Allergy dogs, or allergy alert dogs, are trained to scent specific allergies that the owner has. When they scent the allergen, they alert the owner to the potential allergen. This helps them avoid eating the food or interacting with the allergen.
While they may not seem to have a huge role, allergy dogs have enabled many people to live without fear that they may come into contact with their life threatening allergen while providing them with companionship.
Number Eight: Autism Support Dogs
This is an exciting time for service dogs and I remember being part of the initial breeding programs when autism dog training started to become very successful. Unlike most service dogs, autism support dogs work with people of all ages, including children as young as 6 years old.
Autism support dogs are trained to work with people with autism or sensory processing disorders found within the autism umbrella. They provide security for parents as they are trained to maintain boundaries as well as find their handlers if they’ve run.
For the handler/owner, autism support dogs are trained with identifying times of distress in their owner. They will provide calming tasks and are trained to provide tactile or deep pressure stimulation.
Finally, autism support dogs often teach life skills to their handlers and offer both security and independence, even when their handler is quite young.
Traits to Look for in a Service Dog
Although service dog organizations will look for different traits depending on the job the service dog is doing, there are common traits that all service dogs should have before they are even considered for a role.
Generally, a service dog organization will choose dogs on their own or from breeding programs that they facilitate. However, if you are thinking about training your own pup to be a service dog, it is important to look for the following traits:
Number One: Calm
Service dogs should be calm and should have no problem with unusual situations or noises. If your pup startles easily or is very hyperactive, then he is not the best option for a service dog candidate.
Number Two: Friendly
Again, you want your pup to be friendly but not too friendly. He should be happy to receive attention from others when you say it is okay but shouldn’t actively seek it out. Remember, he needs to work and a social butterfly is going to be too focused on meeting people to work properly.
In addition, you need a dog who will bond with their owners and will naturally follow them around. A dog that is independent and aloof is not going to stay with his owner and will miss cues necessary to properly assist him.
Number Three: Willing to Please
This trait is imperative when it comes to working and also with the training. A dog that is stubborn or not actively trying to please his owners is less likely to work or take to the training well. That is the reason why most organizations choose eager to please breeds such as Labrador Retrievers.
Number Four: Intelligent
Along with being willing to please, service dogs should be intelligent so they can manage the range of training that they will need to have. In addition, dogs need to know how to think on their own while still being bonded and close to their owners. Intelligent breeds are better at this task.
Number Five: Alert
Finally, you want a pup that is alert when it comes to his surroundings but never reactive. So, a dog should take notice of a door bell ringing, however, he should never bolt for the door. Remember that a service dog has a job to do and if he is reactive in any way, he will be too focused on his reaction and not on doing his desired job.
Although this is more of a training point, I did want to mention that all dogs who are service dogs should be properly socialized to a large range of situations, environments and stimuli. Dogs who aren’t, shouldn’t be used in a service dog role since they may startle or react negatively to a new experience.
If you feel that your pup has all these qualities, then you can look into certified service dog training with your pup.
What are Popular Breeds for Service Dog Training?
Although there are a large number of dog breeds that are capable of being a service dogs, especially if they have all of the traits above, there are some breeds that seem like the perfect fit.
Many service organizations have their favorite breeds, or breed mixes, that they use for their programs, however, if you are training on your own, here is a list of breeds, which would include their mixes, that are excellent service pups.
- Labrador Retriever: Perfect for every type of service dog career, Labrador retrievers are one of the most popular service dogs.
- Pomeranians: Small but hard working and excellent as mental health service dogs, allergy dogs and diabetes assistance dogs.
- Great Danes: Although they are quite large, they do very well as service dogs. Specifically, they are excellent as mobility service dogs, especially when it comes to balance and support.
- Mastiffs: Another giant who is perfect as a service dog. Again, mastiffs are excellent for mobility service and their calming, caring nature makes them excellent as mental health service dogs.
- Golden Retrievers: Like Labrador Retrievers, golden retrievers work very well in all areas of service dog fields. Their sweet and friendly disposition makes them excellent mental health service dogs.
- German Shepherds: Their intelligence makes them perfect for a wide range of service dog roles, however, their strength makes them excellent mobility service dogs and their keen sense of smells make them perfect for diabetes assistance dogs and allergy dogs.
- Poodle: Poodles have shown a high capacity for service dog jobs and even the smaller varieties can do well as diabetes assistance dogs and allergy dogs.
- Newfoundland Dog: Newfoundland dogs, or Newfoundlands, are known for their ability as a water rescue dog, however, they excel in service work as well. They are very good for mobility service jobs and as mental health service dogs.
- Border Collie: Intelligent, quick to learn and able to do a variety of jobs, border collies can fit into any type of service work.
- American Staffordshire Terrier: While there can be some restrictions on this breed due to breed specific legislation, there are none when it comes to service dog careers. They excel in a range of roles and are excellent for mental health service roles.
As you can see, there is a wide range of breeds that do well with service dog work.
Are Emotional Support Dogs Classified as Service Dogs?
The answer to this question is no. In many countries, emotional support dogs are not classified as service dogs. The main reasons are that they provide two separate roles.
A service dog provides a functioning service for people. This can be guiding them, alerting them or both and they are trained to do this job.
Emotional support dogs, however, are companion dogs. They are not trained to provide a service and instead, are there to provide companionship and to help people with emotional and mental health support.
While they do require some special training to properly support their owners, there are emotional support dogs that only have obedience training.
And this is one of the deciding factors between service dogs and emotional support dogs.
Regarding the certification of an emotional support dog, owners must have a qualifying disorder…there are about 40 different disorders/disabilities that qualify.
In addition, they need to have a diagnosis of the disorder by their medical doctor or mental health professional and the must receive a letter stating their dog offers them emotional support directly related to their disorder.
Some disorders or disabilities that qualify for an emotional support dog are:
- Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
- Cognitive Disabilities
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Anxiety Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
However, it should be important to note that even with the proper letters and diagnoses, emotional support dogs are not protected in the same way as service dogs. While service dogs are allowed everywhere, emotional support dogs are not allowed in many private businesses.
In fact, in any countries, private businesses can deny access to emotional support dogs.
How to Qualify for a Service Dog?
Qualifying for a service dog is not as difficult as many people believe but it also isn’t an easy task. There are wait lists depending on the type of service dogs you are trying to qualify for and there can be specific requirements that differ between service dog organizations.
However, in general, qualifying for a service dog does require working with both the service dog organization and your health team. In addition, you may need to work with government agencies to make it possible to cover any funding that may be needed.
With that in mind, let’s look at a few things required when you are trying to qualify for a service dog.
Number One: Age
While this isn’t always the first thing that is checked, age is important when trying to qualify. Most service dog organizations do not place service dogs with anyone under the age of 12. The exception to this rule is autism dogs that work with children between the ages of 6 to 12.
Number Two: Diagnosis of a disability
Before you even look for a service dog organization, it is important to have your diagnosis completed by a medical health professional. The type of disability that you have will affect the type of service dog you will be applying for.
However, to qualify, you need to be diagnosed with a physical, emotional or mental disability. As with emotional support dogs, there is a long list of disorders and disabilities that qualify, including:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Vision Impairment
- Hearing Impairment
- Mobility disorders/disabilities
For a list of disorders and disabilities that qualify someone for a service dog, visit the National Service Animal Registry: https://www.nsarco.com/disability-list.html
Number Three: Are able to train
Although the service dog organization will be doing a large chunk of training, the dog needs to be trained to their individual owner. In addition, part of the training is in training you the handler so if you are not able to dedicate about an hour a day to training, you won’t be able to qualify.
This training takes place before your service dog is placed with you and can last for a long time before and even after your service dog arrives home. In addition, you will need to be close enough to the training organization so you can access the training easily.
Number Four: Have no other dog
While there are exceptions, most service dog organizations hold firm that you cannot have another dog in the house if you are to qualify for a service dog. The main reason for this is because another dog can interfere with the service dog’s abilities to work. In addition, they can be a distraction and could affect the dog’s training.
Number Five: Able to handle the service dog
This goes hand in hand with the training but once the service dog is home, you will be the handler of the dog. For this reason, it is important that you are capable to handle the dog both physically and cognitively. You will also need to be confident when giving commands to the dog.
However, don’t worry if you aren’t confident with handling, that is what the hour a day of training helps build.
Number Six: Stable home
Finally, a lot of work goes into a service dog from the breeding to raising the puppies and finally selecting and training the best candidate for the work.
This means that a lot of time, money and effort is invested in a service dog and service dog organizations want to make sure that the home is stable to prevent the dog being rehomed or mistreated.
In addition, potential owners should have the financial means to take care of the dog. This includes being able to pay for any medical costs, feeding and general care.
While some organizations will offer funding for a service dog, as well as his upkeep, it is important to have a safety net to cover these costs in the event that funding falls through.
Even if you have checked off all of the list above, be aware that you may have a long wait time before you are accepted and are able to bring home your own service dog. In general, you could be looking at a 2 year wait before your dog arrives home.
How to Train a Service Dog?
For people who do not want to go through a service dog organization and want to find their own service dog, there is an option to train your own service dog. Before you do this, however, make sure that your pup has the traits as listed earlier in this article.
If your pup is an excellent candidate for service dog training, now is the time to find a certified service dog trainer. While there are many articles and how to videos out there for training, a service dog trainer will be able to help you fine tune your dog’s abilities as a service dog.
In addition, he will help you avoid teaching your dog bad habits.
Step One: Cover the Foundations
Before any dog can start service dog training, he will need to have the basics covered. These include all the training he would have as a young puppy that will help him be a great companion first and foremost. This includes:
- Sit, Down, Stand
- Stay and Come
- Focus or Watch
The more levels of obedience your dog has will only increase his success as a service dog. If you have the opportunity, take your pup to basic obedience as well as more advanced training levels.
Step Two: Canine Good Citizen
While it is not necessary, the Canine Good Citizen test is a great way to gauge whether your pup is ready to start training as a service dog.
If you are not aware of the test, it is put on by the American Kennel Club (as well as the Canadian Kennel Club) and it helps show that a dog is well behaved and trained.
Once dogs take the test, they receive a certificate of completion and the benefits are in the abilities you see in your dog.
With the Canine Good Citizen, dogs are tested in 10 areas and all of the areas will aid him in being a service dog. The dog must pass all 10 tests to earn his Canine Good Citizen title. These include:
- Does he accept a friendly stranger?
- Will he sit politely when pet?
- Is he groomed and will he be groomed by someone other than his owner?
- Can he walk on a loose lead without pulling?
- Does he walk easily through a crowd?
- Can he perform basic commands sit, down, and stay?
- Is he confident being with a trusted person without you?
- Does he react to distractions in a positive manner?
- Does he react to other dogs?
- Can he come when called?
If the answer is yet to all of these questions, then your dog is ready to move onto the next stage of his training as a service dog.
Step Three: Teach Public Access Skills
After your dog has his basic obedience, you will need to teach him public access skills. This is very important since the dogs will be going into a variety of public situations and they need to know how to both behave and navigate them.
With this training, dogs are also tested to be approved as a service dog. Remember, with any level of service dog, if owners want to have full benefits of access, dogs need to be tested and pass various tests for proper certification. This is one of those tests.
Like the Canine Good Citizen, dogs are tested on a variety of tasks that they can do without interference or hesitation. These include:
- Can he get in and out of a vehicle in a controlled and calm manner?
- Does he enter and exit doorways calmly and controlled?
- When in a building, does he remain in a heel?
- Will he listen to the down and sit command regardless of the situation presented? For example, people walking toward him, a cramped space where people pass closely, noisy and exciting environment and so on.
- Does he approach buildings in a controlled manner?
- Will he remain controlled in stimulating environments including restaurants?
- Does he stay when the leash is dropped?
- Will he come when called?
When we say controlled, the dog must not pull, whine, bark or even retreat from the task. This training takes a lot of time and dogs are often tested more than once. The best way to pass this testing is to expose your dog to public settings as frequently as you possibly can.
Step Four: Train Task Skills
This type of training isn’t the final step. As with all training, you will be adding tasking skills to your pup’s training schedule along with the other training commands. If you are not sure, task skills are the tasks that service dogs provide for their owners.
For instance, a task may be to retrieve a dropped item from the floor, turn on a light, or to sense an oncoming anxiety attack so they can calm their owner.
These tasks should be trained with the help of a service dog trainer and it is important to make sure they match the needs of the individual person.
Although it can be very rewarding training your own service dog, it is a long endeavor. For most service dogs, training takes about 2 years with daily training and can be quite expensive.
All service dogs need proper certification to have the legal rights afforded to service animals so be prepared to pay those expenses.
In the end, owning a service dog can offer a lot of comfort, independence and freedom. They can be a big responsibility but they also afford owners a new lease on life that they may not otherwise have without a service dog.
Whether you train your own or apply for one, be prepared for the process and be sure to know exactly what you need for your service pup.